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Tips to Create an Accessible Microsoft Word Document

Jun 11, 2019

Microsoft Word is one of the most common ways to create text documents. Thankfully, Word has many built-in features to help make documents accessible. However, this doesn't mean a Word document is automatically accessible — to make a document fully accessible, you need to follow a few key principles.

Seven guidelines to make Microsoft Word documents accessible to people with disabilities

Provide structure to your document

Many people with visual (or other) disabilities use screen readers and other assistive technology to navigate documents. Adding a logical hierarchy with built-in styles and formatting content correctly will help screen readers determine and communicate the intended reading order and structure. To create a structured document:

  • Use built-in headings and styles. The Styles feature in Word has pre-set formatting definitions that can be applied to sections of text. Use styles such as title and headings to organize sections of content.
  • Nest headings and subheadings appropriately. Always keep the most important heading as a Heading 1, followed by a Heading 2, and so on. By logically and sequentially structuring headings, everyone can more-easily read the document.
  • Create the table of contents with the Table of Contents command in Word, not by manually typing it. Creating a table of contents is an easy way to enhance usability for everyone, including people with disabilities.
  • Avoid placing content inside text boxes, as they are problematic with screen readers.

Make your hyperlink text descriptive and meaningful

Clear hyperlinks are not only required for accessibility, but improve the overall usability of your document. To make your hyperlinks more accessible:

  • Ensure hyperlinks accurately describe the purpose of the link.
  • Most screen readers announce “link” with each link, so there’s no need to include the word "link" in the text.
  • Don’t name the link “Click here”, “Click on the link,” or “Read more”. Instead use the title of the destination document as the name for the link if appropriate, or some other descriptive and accurate link language.
  • Make your hyperlink easily distinguishable.

Here’s an example for all the above guidelines:

Add alternative text to all images

Alternative text, commonly known as alt text, are sometimes referred to as alt descriptions and alt attributes. Alt text, just like hyperlinks, is not only required for accessibility, but also strengthens the search engine optimization (SEO) of your document. Alt text is also helpful when an image cannot load because of a slow internet connection, if it’s broken, or blocked by a firewall. Always:

  • Add meaningful alternative text description to images.
  • Add a descriptive and detailed explanation of a complex image (such as a graph or chart) in text, directly above or below.
  • If an image is meant for decorative purpose only, use a null alt tag (alt=" ").

Create columns using the Columns tool and lists using the Lists tool

Word offers built-in features to create sections like columns or lists. Never use the tab key or the spacebar to create the appearance of columns or lists. If you do, a screen reader will read each line from one margin of the page to the other, ignoring the tabs in between that give the appearance of columns. To create columns and lists correctly:

  • Use the Column tool to create columns.
  • Use the Numbering or Bullets features to create lists.

Create tables using the Table tool

Always create tables using the Insert Table tool located in the Tables group. Avoid using tables for formatting content other than data tables. To create accessible tables:

  • Always give your table a title using the Caption tool.
  • Always identify row and column headers.
  • Ensure no merged, split, or blank cells are used in a way that wouldn't be intuitive for an assistive technology user.
  • Try to avoid overly-complex tables. If required, consider whether you should split them into two tables or find another way to represent the information.
  • Bookmark the table.

Use color diligently

The concept of color contrast is as critical as it is simple. Use the a11y® Color Contrast Accessibility Validator to check color contrast. It’s a free instant color contrast analysis provided by the Bureau of Internet Accessibility. Remember:

  • Color should not be the only means of conveying information.
  • Ensure colors have good contrast and pass the color contrast requirements.

Always add document properties

Ensure users and search engines alike have the properties they need, like a title, to understand what the document is. To add a title, open File, go to Properties, and enter the document title.

Digital documents need to be accessible

Remember, any document you link to from your website or social media, or share with your customers, needs to be accessible. For help understanding how laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or guidelines like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) apply to your website, and for help creating a customized accessibility compliance solution for your organization, contact us. Or, get started with a free graded website accessibility scan.

Use our free Website Accessibility Checker to scan your site for ADA and WCAG compliance.

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